Michael M.

REPRESENT JUSTICE X JR: TEHACHAPI

When I was 15 years old, I, unfortunately, made a really bad choice by involving myself in a gang-related murder. I was tried as an adult and given a 15 to life sentence in California. At that time, California was sending kids as young as 14 to adult prisons with a life sentence. When I received a life sentence at such a young age, for me it was basically a message from the whole entire world, like they're saying that, "We don't care about you, we don't need you anymore. We lost all hope in you." For me, that started me off in prison believing that I would never go home again. It was the scariest thing ever. You're living with a bunch of men who can be old enough to be your grandfather, your father, and their message to me was, “Sit tight, this is your life.”

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That sunk into me. It really made me believe I was never going to see my family again, I was never going to amount to anything. Fast forward 18 years later, I finally was able to go home because the law had changed. SB-260 basically gave people under the age of 18 a second chance to prove that they were no longer 14 or 15 years old like I was, but to prove that I had grown and matured into an adult that can come home and be productive and be helpful. I got my bachelor’s degree in political science. I’ve been an ARC (Anti Recidivism Coalition) member for the past five years, fortunate enough to now be able to be the national director for Cut50 working on criminal justice reform issues.

For me, the whole point of all of my experiences and what I’ve learned and become to be, for me, it’s a message to the world that kids can change, that they shouldn’t be given life sentences, that they have the ability to grow. Kids don’t deserve to be in prisons with adults. Kids deserve an opportunity to show that they are better than a life sentence.

I think art can really be used as a tool to humanize how so many people are going through the prison system. I think one of the things I used to do a lot was draw and paint. I even used to tattoo on people to kind of get away and escape. There’s something different when you are able to hold a pen or pencil in your hand and draw on a piece of paper and tell your own story. It’s a story that you can actually draw or write. For me, it was the message that the world had given me a message of hopelessness and anger.
Growing up in a prison, every single day, my main concern was safety. It was never rehabilitation. But when I was able to really have days where there was hope or days that were filled with hope and not violence, those were the best days that really kept me moving forward.

Those were the days that allowed me to remember that I still had family out here. Those were the days that reminded me that I did commit or I did participate in a very violent act that took the life of somebody who had family members who had a sister, who had a mother, who on every Christmas or birthday or holiday, they were going to miss somebody. I always told myself that if I didn’t change or grow or mature or do everything I could to better myself, I was still making things worse for him and his family. So for me to turn my life around was my way of giving back to somebody who is no longer in this world. It was the only thing that was getting me through those days was, one, I was doing it for Eliezer and his family. Two, I was doing it for my family.

But unfortunately, it’s still a world filled with violence every single day that distracts you from your priorities. If there was one thing that I could tell the rest of the world about how people spend their time in prisons, it’s that we have to do a better job of thinking of a totally different idea on how to hold people responsible. People in prison are human beings who have the ability just like you and I do to learn, to grow, to change, and they deserve that opportunity.